Nana Ama came back to Ghana in January 2020, hoping for a fresh start. But amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, her plans to establish a hair salon were put on hold. A year on, with the support from the European Return and Reintegration Network, she is not only working as a hairdresser at her own place, but is also a proud owner of a barber shop.
It was a search for a better future for her four kids that made Nana Ama travel to Belgium in 2019. She had heard from a friend that hairstyling was a lucrative business there, and she was tempted by the idea of making good money and providing her children in a way she had always dreamt of: “I wanted my kids to have the best of education and enjoy a quality life.”
It took her five months to get a passport and secretly leave the country. But the troubles began shortly, as Nana Ama overstayed her tourist visa.
Since she did not have any legal residence permit, she was constantly alert, terrified by the idea of getting caught by the immigration officers. “Every time I saw a police car, I was afraid. When I saw a uniformed man passing by, I was nervous. My heart would always skip a beat.”
When Nana Ama finally had courage to get in touch with her husband whom she left behind, he did not want anything to do with her again. The daily life struggles and a constant longing to see her children again made her plunge into depression. “If I had known about all the procedures and what it takes to be an illegal immigrant, I wouldn’t have left home,” she says sorrowfully.
The life in hiding soon led to Nana Ama developing serious health issues, but she did not dare to seek medical help due to her irregular status. She was braiding hair of the Ghanaian women in Brussels to make some money to survive; it was them supporting her with medication and a good word. But soon she started talking to herself and her condition worsened. She understood it was the time to go back.
“A friend told me about the Belgian Federal Agency for the reception of asylum seekers, Fedasil. I went to their office where I told them of my willingness to return to Ghana; they told me about the ERRIN programme. Before my return, they also provided me with medical assistance. It was the first time I visited a hospital in Belgium.”
Long way home
Immediately after landing in Accra, Ama was hit by a sharp pain and rushed to the local hospital. “It was an intense throbbing pain in my head, I suddenly felt helpless,” she says.
During time in the hospital, the representatives of AG Care Ghana, ERRIN’s local service partner, visited her to asses her condition and ensure she gets a proper treatment*. “They paid for my hospital bills. I also got an amount allocated to help me re-start my hairdressing business.”
Nana Ama wanted to pick up where she left off – prior to her departure, she was a well-established hairdresser in a suburb of Kumasi. She left her business in an employee’s hands, but she found the place in a bad shape after the return. She decided to invest the reintegration money into renovation works and new equipment.
After being discharged from the hospital, Nana Ama headed to her hometown, determined to start anew. But there was another challenge waiting for her there.
The challenges of COVID-19
At that time, a panic wave associated with the spread of COVID-19 was taking over Ghana; the residents in Nana Ama’s community feared that she had come back from Belgium infected with the virus. No one wanted to come near her, stigmatising the woman for being an alleged virus spreader: “Nobody wanted to talk to me. I was very sad. I thought I had made a mistake by returning home.” To make things worse, the coronavirus restrictions in place significantly delayed her launching the business planned as part of her remaining reintegration package.
During those difficult times, her family kept her strong, as she finally reunited with her children and the estranged husband. “Continuous counselling and encouragement from AG Care also put me back on my feet,” she recalls. As the COVID-19 numbers got under control and the Ghanaian government started easing the restrictions, Nana Ama has finally re-opened her salon in December 2020.
Today, Nana Ama’s client base keeps on growing; in the meantime, she even managed to hire two trainees to help her with the expanding business.
Nana Ama concludes, “If it wasn’t for the support offered by ERRIN, my life upon return would have been extremely difficult. With their assistance, I am now running a hair salon with barbering division and generating some income to cater for my family. Now that I am fully settled in Ghana, I look forward to supporting all my children to complete their education to make an impact on society.”
*Medical assistance and treatment expenses can constitute part of the reintegration package offered by the ERRIN programme.